Black History Month
By Autaum Henderson | February 18, 2022

What Do the Gas Furnace, Hairbrush and Murphy Bed All Have in Common? They Were All Created by Black Innovators.

In fact, many of the comforts we enjoy today can be credited to Black inventors.

Each year on February 1, we kickoff what is now known as Black History Month.  It is at this time we acknowledge, remember, and celebrate the lives of those who have impacted both our culture and our world throughout history. This Black History Month, Zebra wants to celebrate those whose inventions have had a long-lasting impact on our lives. Inventions that we may now take for granted even though we are unaware of the stories or people behind their inception.

To be honest, wanting to celebrate Black Inventors was personal for me. I was recently watching a video about Black inventors and learned about the cabinet bed. It was said during this documentary that if it was not for this invention, Murphy Beds would not have existed. I became intrigued and wanted to learn more. Come to find out, the inventor’s name is Sarah E. Goode and she patented the folding cabinet bed. In fact, she was one of the first Black women to receive a U.S. patent. 

She invented the cabinet bed as a way for her clients to be able to use their space efficiently. They lived in small working-class apartments that did not have a lot of space. As someone who grew up in apartments, I have a great appreciation for space-saving furniture that can double as another piece of furniture, such as a sofa that transforms into a bunk bed, a desk that becomes a bed, and a wall mounted table. Without Sarah E. Goode wanting to create space saving furniture for her clients, we may not have the other incredibly versatile pieces we benefit from today. 

Another Black innovator who has improved our lives in multiple ways was Dr. Lewis Howard Latimer. He invented an evaporative air conditioner and helped improve the process for manufacturing carbon filaments. Without the carbon filaments, there would be no light bulb. Without the light bulb, we would not have flashlights, headlights, emergency lighting, decorative lighting, lamp posts and more. That’s why Dr. Lewis is considered the godfather for all modern technology that uses light. I would also argue that he was the godfather of modern-day HVAC for, without him, we may not have climate-controlled temperatures in our houses today.  The evaporative air conditioner was a precursor to another inventor’s patent, the air conditioner. 

Frederick McKinley Jones used Dr. Latimer’s innovative thinking regarding the evaporative air conditioner and made it mobile with his innovative thinking. He placed a mobile air conditioning unit on top of a truck to keep food, blood and other items refrigerated during transportation throughout World War II. This invention led to the refrigerated and ice cream trucks we see today, among other types of vehicles that always need to be kept cool. With Mr. Jones’ invention, we can transport food from different countries without having to worry about them spoiling, essentially enabling an international cold chain. His invention also led to the development of air conditioning units people were able to install in their homes, as the schematic/patent looks like it is the precursor for window air conditioning units, which have changed quite a bit over the years. They have gone windowless and to central AC units. Your indoor AC unit can now double as art, as well!  

Interestingly, while Dr. Latimer and Mr. Jones were focused on cooling, Alice H. Parker went in the opposite direction and invented a gas furnace that allows us to keep warm when it is chilly or cold outside. Her invention led to what we know as central heating today, with zone heating and thermostats, compelling many people to consider her the “mother of modern heating.” Without her invention people may still be creating hazardous sleeping conditions for themselves and their families by either burning coal or keeping a fire lit all night long to stay warm. 

Another woman I did not realize I admired so much is Lyda D. Newman. She evolved the hairbrush to a design that uses synthetic bristles, which is a hair product I cannot live without. I do not want to think about how unkempt my hair would be without her genius. Recently, I went on the hunt for another detangling hairbrush because the one I bought was not holding up to my hair. My sister bought a new brush, advised I should try it and buy my own if I liked it. So, I tried it, fell in love, then went on the hunt. After about a 10-minute search, I was able to find then purchase the brush. I use the synthetic-bristled brush basically every night and morning. And now that I know about the woman who came up with this brilliant tool, I tend to think about her as I’m using it. I am particularly fond of the rolling brush, as well, as it helps to straighten my hair when it is being blow dried. Without Ms. Newman’s invention, I wonder if I would have this rolling brush available today, too. 

In other words, the simplicity of life today is the result of some grueling efforts by Black inventors whose names should be as commonly recognized as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Willis Carrier and William L. Murphy.

The Black inventors I just mentioned are among many who have – and continue – to introduce greater practicality, security, and fun into our lives. The electric elevator door, the three-light traffic light with a “warning” signal (i.e., the yellow light) and the Super Soaker are all clever ideas that came from the Black community. The microphone was another, giving us the means to work hard (from home) and play hard (on karaoke night). Speaking of working from home, the ST Connector that helped make fiber optic communications affordable was invented by Thomas C. Cannon. And the home security system was the ingenuity of Marie Van Brittan Brown

Other notable creations of Black innovators?

  • The rotary-blade lawn mower

  • The seed planter

  • Better techniques for blood storage

  • A bicycle frame that could be taken apart for compact storage

  • Compounds to treat Hepatitis C

  • Telescopes to photograph the solar corona 

  • Brain surgery techniques

  • Early versions of the gas mask

  • Fire safes

  • The first gigahertz processor (along with color PC displays)

Though all have been lifechanging, that last one has been especially impactful for my colleagues and me. Zebra is in the mobile computing business. So, what Mark Dean did with his PC engineering team at IBM in the 1980s and 1990s helped the Zebra team get to where we are today with mobile computer engineering. 

Without their forethought or fervor to solve problems, would we have some of the most fundamental comforts we enjoy today? Our jobs? Our health? Hope?

Probably not.

So, I am grateful that they didn’t give up, no matter how many challenges they may have faced or how little credit they may have received at first. Their commitment to creating something better inspires me every day to appreciate what I have and do what I can to make someone else’s life better. 


Stay tuned into the Your Edge Blog for more innovation-related fun facts.  

Corporate Social Responsibility, Inside Zebra Nation, Innovative Ideas,
Autaum Henderson
Autaum Henderson

Autaum Henderson is currently a Customer Support Team Lead at Zebra Technologies where she is responsible for using creating and effective ways to determine appropriate solutions and responses. Autaum has more than two years of experience within Zebra Retail Solutions and has been recently promoted to Team Lead. She also serves as the Communications Director for Zebras of African Descent (ZAD), one of Zebra’s Inclusion Networks.

Previously, Autaum served as Lead Teller for Chase and Capital One, where she managed the teller line and bankers after going to Capital One. She worked at New York Life as Relationship Manager, where she helped people save for their future.  Autaum is actively pursuing a Bachelor of Professional Studies Degree in Information Systems from SUNY Empire State College. 

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